Why I’m not going for Gauguin

So every calendar year at least (and with my current extra free time, potentially a lot more frequently now) I try and do one properly high culture outing, which usually involves the Tate Modern. Last year (admittedly very early in the year, so it’s over 20 months ago) it was the Rothko exhibition; this time around it was the Tate’s exhibition of the works of Paul Gauguin.

I didn’t know much about Gauguin in advance of the exhibition and wasn’t particularly familiar with his works, but that’s fine – I go to exhibitions such as these to find and explore things that are new to me. It’s even helpful to go without any preconceptions. But I was certainly very surprised to hear that this exhibition had been the most popular the Tate has ever staged in terms of ticket sales, beating even the likes of the Rothko, Kandinsky and Hopper exhibitions, so I was keen to find out what all the fuss was about.

To put it bluntly: I’m still waiting.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t dislike the work on show. It was perfectly fine. But also rather ordinary, from his early work in France that was very much conforming to its time, to the more interesting yet still not fully developed Impressionist-era work and the paintings he did from his travels to Matinique, Panama and Tahiti.

According to the well-written informational text at the exhibition, Gauguin’s work provoked shock and outrage in its day, with his work described as “brutish” because of the way he started to deform shapes such as the human body down to crude, near-sculpture-like representative forms and because of his use of vivid, bold colour against prevailing convention. Sadly, viewing his work today it is utterly devoid of any sense of that shock, and with it the paintings come across as more the product of a transitional phase of art history that today seems neither one thing nor the other.

Throughout the exhibition I was thinking “Yes, that’s getting more interesting, now if you just push that idea on a little bit, then … ” But he never did. After a jump in his artistic style spurred by his departure from France for more exotic climes he seems to have settled back into something of a comfortable rut (for him, at least) and not significantly developed any further. It was to be for other painters who came after him in the 20th Century to take those ideas and develop them to fruition, and because of the context of those later paintings Gauguin’s work looks timid and not fully realised to modern eyes. In the meantime, Gauguin’s style has been remorselessly copied for decades by every hack graphic illustrator looking for an illustration to sell for posters, postcards and greetings cards. His paintings have been made so generic now from over-exposure that they seem almost mass-produced copies of themselves, which has robbed them of their power to outrage and left instead only a pleasant painting of a holiday destination for people to say, “Ohh, that’s nice” where it’s not meant to be nice. Added to that, the exotic landscapes and naked, sexualised indigenous peoples he depicts from his time in Pacific – profoundly shocking to polite French society in their day – are now all too familiar to us from even the most mundane of holiday travel programmes, making even this aspect feel rather old hat compared to their stunning novelty in the late 19th Century.

So when I say I don’t see what the fuss is about with Gauguin, what I mean is that I struggle to understand why people today should still find them interesting. However, I will add that there are two pictures in the exhibition that really did stand out for me. Surprisingly, neither of them are the picture “Nevermore“, a detail of which appears on the Tate Modern exhibition catalogue and which appears to be a worldwide icon for Gauguin’s work, something that seems a strange choice as far as I’m concerned.

The first is a picture called The Green Christ, an 1889 painting that depicts a Breton woman seated in front of an ethereal collection of green-hued figures from a statue of Christ’s execution. The green figures are so spectral and haunting, and the way they loom over the woman compared with a background of the pleasant pink pastel colours of a Brittany coastal scene, is extremely effective and eye-catching. (A companion painting called The Yellow Christ, also at the exhibition, is far more famous but I find it far less effective.)

The other painting that I really appreciated is Gauguin’s Christ in the Garden of Olives, a large canvas with an overwhelmingly sombre palette, which suddenly erupts into life with the flame-orange colouring of Christ’s hair and beard. It’s a truly effective and shocking use of colour that really captures the eye, especially with the size of the painting that dominates one of the walls at the exhibition.

But really those are the only two paintings that really captured my attention and stay with me now, a week after seeing the exhibition. The rest have already faded away and merged into a general (Gallic?) shrug, although I certainly found the examples of Gauguin’s work in other media to be much more interesting. There are some lovely sketches in charcoal, pen and ink for example; a lot of sculptures and wood cuttings that are fascinating to look at; there’s a travel log which is a cross between an early graphic novel and visual reportage – National Geographic before photography; and some nice satirical cartoons from when Gauguin was trying to annoy the local politicos.

Having spoken about the failure of Gauguin’s work to “shock” or “outrage” me, I now risk contradicting myself by talking about some of the unsettling undercurrents of the exhibition relating to the man himself and the attitudes of the time. I’m not one of those prudish types who requires that they like the person in question in order to approve of everything they do (for example, as deeply flawed as President Nixon was as a person, there’s no denying his immense achievements in many areas of his presidency – not despite those flaws, but in many ways because of them) but I did find that the more I knew about Gauguin the person, the more difficult it was to be well-disposed to him or his work. And no, it’s not just because he started off as a stockbroker.

Even his friends and most ardent supporters described him, after his death, as a “monster” – both artistically and personally. He abandoned his wife and five children, and then – when he deemed not to be getting enough credit and praise from the artistic establishment – went off to the tropics where he took another child bride whom he abandoned before spending many years in the Pacific Islands sleeping with any of the female natives he could. Oh, and spreading the syphilis that finally led to his death at the age of 54. Before that he was thrown in prison for rows with the Church and government – he refused to pay taxes on sales of his work which were rather healthy back in Paris, and tried to stir unrest among the natives with their colonial masters.

Which brings us to something I felt very heavily at this exhibition: the spectre at the feast of colonialism, best summed up in the way that Gauguin, arriving in Tahiti expecting an unspoiled heathen/pagan paradise, found that the missionaries had long since beaten him to it done their work to make the native population a nice, God-fearing Catholic people; and so he painted not what he found but his fiction of the pre-Christian population, even creating cod-pagan fake-religious relics for them to include in his art. Looking at Gauguin’s work of this era it’s hard not to have feelings about not just Gauguin’s exploitative use of the native population but of the whole culture of French colonialism that was at its height and most suffocating at this time before the first World War a decade later ended European nations’ global imperial aspirations at long last.

As I said above, I don’t object to great artists and statesmen having flaws and feed of clay; it’s surely very healthy to be reminded that great works can be done by humans just as weak and flawed as we ourselves are. In fact, greatness very often goes hand in hand with a selfishness and single-mindedness that makes them deeply unpleasant people but singularly successful in their endeavours: an artist with no self-belief is one who gives up and gets a “proper job” without ever being heard of.

In this case however, Gauguin’s faults as a person are huge, and for me at least his work had been comprehensively overshadowed by other, better painters before and since. His flaws led him to self-exile and an early death, and an ego and laziness in his art that prevented it from true greatness. The ego is particularly conspicuous with Gauguin, with the number of self-portraits (both proper finished works and sketches and other likenesses) very noticeable even before one gets to the aforementioned Christ in the Garden of Olives. In this painting, the face of Christ is Gauguin’s own and he was openly comparing his perceived slights from the French art establishment with Christ’s own Biblical suffering. The sense of self-absorption, selfishness and self-pity is quite breathtaking and seeps throughout much of his work of the 1890s.

I know I’m in the minority with my opinion on Gauguin, as the huge adoring crowds flocking to Bankside attest. For that reason the Tate exhibition was paradoxically very satisfying and well worth visiting, because art is intensely personal and it’s just as or even more important to know what one doesn’t like as it is to play safe and to stick with one’s “favourites”.

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  1. Well that’s Gaugin sorted 🙂 Haven’t been to see this yet. I love the Tate Modern though…might amble along to see what all the fuss is about.Thanks for a real thought provoking post…




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